Can’t wait for the 2008 presidential campaign to start?
You don’t have to. If you came to Minnesota this week you could have seen, within 48 hours of each other, the two contenders who arguably are the most charismatic standard bearers for their parties in the presidential election: Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who campaigned from one end of the state to the other on Wednesday, and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the rising star who rallied Democrats in Rochester, Minn. Monday night. Obama has thrown his party’s presidential calculus into a loop by stepping into the race on Meet the Press two weeks ago.
Call it Old Charisma versus Young Charisma: McCain, U.S. Naval Academy, class of 1958, versus, Obama, Columbia University, class of ‘83, who was only a six-year old boy when McCain flew his plane off the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Forrestal, went down over North Vietnam, and was taken to the “Hanoi Hilton” to endure abuse and solitary confinement.
McCain, white-haired and squinty-eyed, bears not only the hard-earned lines of age and experience, but an extraordinary scar down the left side of his face from surgery to remove melanoma.
Obama has the flawless, unlined visage of a carefree young movie idol.
Like McCain, who parlayed his books into useful tours that kept him in the public eye, Obama is now combining book-selling and stops at Borders (as he did in St. Paul, Minn. Monday) with national tours to talk up Democratic candidates.
A test site for '08
Minnesota is a good place to watch the two in action: people here, although polite, take their politics seriously.
It would be a coup for McCain -- assuming he is GOP nominee in 2008 -- if could capture the state’s ten electoral votes; Minnesota hasn’t gone Republican in a presidential election since Richard Nixon won it in 1972.
Here’s the score for this pre-season comparison: Obama 3,000; McCain 200.
That’s the number of people at Obama’s rally in Rochester, and McCain’s in the northern Twin Cities suburb of Blaine on Wednesday.
OK, the Obama event was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. so workers could get there after leaving the office or shop; and McCain’s speech was a noon event that was less convenient for working people.
But Obama generated ecstatic enthusiasm and McCain drew something more reserved: respect and affection.
McCain’s speech on behalf of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty had humor, which Obama’s didn’t. Obama’s was lofty and motivational; McCain’s was shorter and more business-like.
Although McCain doesn’t agree with Sixth Congressional district Republican candidate Michele Bachmann on social issues such as banning same-sex marriage, McCain lavished praise on Bachmann, who was one of his warm-up speakers.
McCain told his threadbare joke about having a hard act to follow and feeling like Zsa Zsa Gabor’s fifth husband who on their wedding night said, “I know what I’m supposed to do; I just don’t know how to make it interesting.”
Believe it or not, some people seem not to have heard that one yet, so McCain got a good laugh.
The zing in the speech was his slap at Sen. John Kerry: “It’s important that we continue to show our support” for soldiers in Iraq “and certainly not suggest that any educational deficiencies motivate their service to this nation.”
There was also a slight valedictory tone to McCain’s speech as he praised Pawlenty, who is 24 years younger than the Arizona senator.
“I’m not getting any younger,” McCain told the crowd. “I’ve had the great honor of serving this nation for a long time, and one of my obligations is to do what I can to assist and motivate other Americans of the next generation to serve this country.”
He said, “This is the kind of leadership I’d like to pass that torch to.”
The Rochester road show
The Obama road show came to Rochester Monday night with the senator lending his talents to help House candidate Tim Walz and Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar.
Even though he said neither party has a monopoly on virtue, he argued that the Democrats were really the ones who cared about ordinary folks.
“At its core, there’s always been the simple idea, the essence of the Democratic Party, the idea that we’ve got a stake in each other… the idea that if there’s injustice and inequality that we need to do something about it,” he declared.
In his highly compressed history of progress in America, intertwined with a timeline of Democratic presidents, he mentioned crowd-pleasing achievements like the creation of Social Security.
But he omitted the role of Democratic presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in sending thousands of soldiers, sailors and aviators (such as McCain) to Vietnam in what became a bitterly unpopular war.
It wasn’t a policy speech, so Obama didn’t offer a plan for what many Democrats see as the latter-day Vietnam War, Iraq. But he got cheers when he said, “the might of our military has to be matched by the finesse of our diplomacy.”
Since he is not yet an officially declared presidential candidate, Obama could afford to be safe in sticking to the rhetoric of moral uplift: the point was to make these rank-and-file Democrats feel good about themselves and their cause so they’d work hard over the next few days drumming up votes for Walz and Klobuchar.
There’ll be time later for policy proposals. And he argued that detailed prescriptions weren’t all that relevant to the voters.
After a long day of work, “they don’t have time for that briefing paper on North Korea or to read the entire federal budget. But I'll tell you what: when they are paying attention, their instincts are good,” he observed.
He did allow as how sometimes the American people became “confused” and “listened to Rush.”
But now with the Democrats ahead in most polls, he said the American people were showing “a seriousness of purpose.”
'He's my candidate for president'
After the speech Obama took to the rope line. Fans thrust at him copies of Time magazine with Obama’s photo on the cover for him to autograph.
An Obama enthusiast from among the many in the crowd was elder statesman, former Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson, who said Obama ought to run in 2008.
Anderson called Hillary Clinton “a fine senator, but she would polarize us” if she ran for president.”
But of Obama, he said simply, “He’s my candidate for president. I like what he said in East Africa where he told the folks there ‘quit blaming colonialism, start working, get rid of corruption.’”
Anderson predicted Obama would, like John F. Kennedy, get bored with the Senate.
So run in 2008 for the White House, was his counsel — and do it soon before you become infected with Washington penchant for blather.
“He’s obviously tremendously bright; he would make us look good in the world community,” he said. “We also have a problem with young male blacks that have a tough time finding their way. He would be a perfect role model and also he could talk to them in a way I couldn’t talk to them.”
Anderson, a young rising political star himself four decades ago, is only three years older than McCain.